Nature vs. Nurture: What’s the Key Driver Behind Gender Inequity in the Workplace?

iStock_000015781730XSmallBy Michelle Hendelman, Editor-in-Chief

The Independent, a UK newspaper, recently published a story asserting that women need to change their mindset if they want to get ahead in their careers, or at the very least, compete with their male counterparts. This perspective is based on the brainsex theory research of Dr. Anne Moir, who portends that professional women should learn how the neurological differences between men and women impact workplace behavior, and potentially contribute to gender bias they may encounter.

Could neuroscience be one explanation for the corporate gender gap, or are there other factors at play, such as environmental elements of corporate culture that reinforce societal perceptions of gender stereotypes?

A recent article in Investments & Wealth Monitor indicated that men and women are in fact hardwired differently, and that these gender differences must be kept in mind when financial advisors work with female clients. Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, the article’s author writes,

“Women view wealth as security for their loved ones now and in the future; therefore, they want to work with advisors they trust implicitly. The female brain reinforces this need for connection, as evidenced by brain scans showing the pleasure centers of women’s brains light up when bonding with others.” She continues, “Men enjoy relationships, but they are socialized and neurologically hardwired to value independence and competition over connection.”

These generalizations about gender stereotypes have penetrated just about every aspect of life, and have been identified as some of the primary reasons for workplace inequities such as the gender pay gap and the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles. But is it enough to say the gender gap in business exists simply because men and women might be wired differently? That just seems too easy.

Women are as Ambitious as Men

In 2012, Pew Research found that among 18-34 year olds, women were more career driven than men. They reported, “Two-thirds (66%) of young women ages 18 to 34 rate career high on their list of life priorities, compared with 59% of young men.1 In 1997, 56% of young women and 58% of young men felt the same way.”

Career advancement is not just important to Generations X and Y, according to Pew. The study also indicated that 43 percent of women between the ages of 35 and 64 said their career was important to them. In 1997, only 26 percent of women in that age group placed emphasis on their career aspirations.

If women value career advancement just as much, if not more than men, why is there still such a measurable gender gap in the most senior level positions within many corporations? Perhaps this is where corporate cultures in male-dominated industries have a part to play in the gender gap in corporate leadership.

One study, published in The Michigan Journal of Business, suggests that underlying perceptions of female leaders in predominantly masculine industries, otherwise known as unconscious bias, is the primary reason women are underrepresented in leadership roles. This supports the theory that the corporate environment must undergo a cultural overhaul to reduce the amount of gender bias among professionals.

Leveling the Playing Field

Qualities such as ambition, risk affinity, skill, and talent are traits that any individual can exhibit, regardless of gender. But just because men and women are capable of possessing similar characteristics or career ambition does not necessarily mean they will enjoy the same level of career advancement.

There is evidence suggesting that gender stereotypes could play a role in the corporate gender gap. In 2011, Catalyst released The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead? [PDF], a study disproving the myth that if men and women employ identical career advancement strategies, they will move up the corporate ladder at the same rate, and with the same reward.

Catalyst reported, “While conventional wisdom encourages women and men to be proactive to advance up the corporate ladder, we found that only men advanced further and faster when they did “all the right things.” For women, adopting the prescribed proactive strategies didn’t have the same payoff, although it was slightly better than not doing much at all.”

The combination of gender based perceptions and corporate cultures that reinforce these biases contribute to a vicious cycle that can impact women’s career advancement. Removing gender bias from the equation when it comes to promotions, recognition, salary, and opportunities is both an individual responsibility and a corporate responsibility.

If individuals, both male and female, break away from traditional perceptions of gender stereotypes in the workplace, there will be a visible shift in the corporate culture. Likewise, if business leaders set the tone by promoting diversity and inclusion, individuals will be more likely to follow suit.

2 Responses

  1. Nurturing creativity regularly is a valuable tactic. The reason is that we regularly get in our own way. We tend to focus too much on what we think, which inhibits our natural creativity.

  2. Cheri DeClercq

    Great insight for women looking to get ahead — and wondering why it’s not working for them! Thanks for this excellent report.